The precept that every person has a duty to follow his own conscience is not in any way a promotion of individualism, much less moral relativism, that is, a "do your own thing" kind of morality.
The influence of individualism on popular culture has been penetrating. That is the reason we are all very familiar with the current meaning of expressions such as "the right to privacy", "the right to my own opinion", not to mention the curious notion of a "private conscience". Today, these expressions mean something very different than what they meant for a previous generation.
Consider the person sitting outside on a Saturday morning, reading a book in the privacy of his own backyard. He has a right not to be unnecessarily disturbed by a pesky neighbour. If a group of us are discussing a very complex and ambiguous issue, one in which the truth of the matter is not at all clear, I have a right to my opinion if it is evident that no other opinion is supported by enough data to render mine less likely to be true. And the right to my opinion ends when someone puts forth an argument that turns out to be more than a mere opinion, but a conclusion based on true premises and sound reasoning. Similarly, Thomas More considered it not only his right but also his duty to follow his own "private conscience" rather than toe the party line, when the party line was inconsistent with the truth. Bolt has More saying: "Well...I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties...they lead their country by a short route to chaos."
But the current meaning of these expressions can only be appreciated within the framework of a ruling scepticism and moral relativism — the doctrine that everything is a matter of opinion, and that in the area of right and wrong, there is no absolute truth. And so, it is commonly held that "I have an absolute right to my own opinion", and a right to do what I decide is good for me. Questions such as "Who are you to tell me that what I am doing is wrong?" or "What business does the Church have telling me or anyone what is morally permissible and impermissible?" follow quite readily from the notion that conscience is something "private", in the individualist sense of that word.
Every person has an obligation to follow his own conscience. But this truth is one of the most misunderstood truths in moral theology today. For there is really no such thing as a "private conscience", in the current sense of the word, any more than there is an absolute "right to one's own opinion", or a "right to privacy" with regard to, for example, determining the destiny of the unborn. For there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as a "private" person. As John Donne writes: "...No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were; ...Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Confusing Judgment with Decision
The precept that every person has a duty to follow his own conscience is not in any way a promotion of individualism, much less moral relativism, that is, a "do your own thing" kind of morality. This is because conscience is fundamentally a judgment, and not a decision, as most people tend to think it is. Conscience is one's best judgment as to what is the morally right thing to do in the circumstances in which one finds oneself. That is why conscience is an act of the intellect, not of the will — and much less is it a feeling.
Let me explain. People who live in a way contrary to natural law and the teachings of the Church will often maintain that they are living according to their conscience. But on closer inspection, it almost always seems to turn out that they are living according to a personal decision, and not their best judgment. They understand, for instance, that Church teaching forbids them to live together as "husband and wife" without a marriage commitment, and yet they do so anyway, and call it a decision of conscience. And that is precisely what it is: a decision, not a judgment, and thus not of conscience. Over the years I've known many young students who have decided to live sexually promiscuous lives — and who have defended their choice as being perfectly okay. These very students, though, told me outright that if and when they had a daughter in the future, they planned to keep that girl under their watchful protection until she was twenty-one. The reason for this, they explained, was that they know what happens to these girls, because they have engaged in behaviour that would outrage any decent father.
A morally upright person will earnestly seek to know the truth of what is objectively right and wrong in human action in order that his conscience will judge correctly and thereby lead him to personal integrity.
Now it is surprising that such students have not stopped to consider the implications of the golden rule (do not do to others what you yourself do not like). Fairness demands that if these students would not want a young teenage boy to seduce their daughter, then they must not choose to seduce the daughter of some other father, perhaps unknown to them. Young people today are very aware of injustice, and they know when others have failed to render to them their rightful due. That is why their best judgment, which came to light when they began to imagine themselves in the situation of a father, was that what they were doing was profoundly wrong and unjust. But they decided otherwise. Their promiscuous behaviour was in no way in accordance with their conscience. Perseverance in such a decision only weakens the voice of conscience and reduces it to a virtual silence — at least in regard to such choices. Because people can continue to make similar choices without serious discomfort does not mean that they are making such decisions in accordance with their conscience. If the above-mentioned students had followed their conscience — which they were obligated to do — they would not have chosen to seduce young, vulnerable, and impressionable girls.
If one has an obligation to follow one's own conscience, it follows that one is bound by a moral obligation, namely, to follow what one knows to be true. The very word "conscience" contains within itself the Latin verb scire, meaning "to know", from which the word "science" is derived. The proper object of knowledge is truth. One does not have knowledge of something unless one has the truth about that something. And so it follows that the most fundamental obligation a person has, that is, the most basic duty of conscience, is to properly inform one's conscience with the knowledge of what is truly good. For if there is no truth, or if we do not have the ability to ascertain the truth, then it follows that there is no duty to follow one's conscience. We may simply do what we want to do. But the goal in a judgment of conscience is to arrive at the knowledge of what is truly the right choice to make within a specific set of circumstances.
A conscience must, therefore, be properly informed by the truth. A morally upright person will earnestly seek to know the truth of what is objectively right and wrong in human action in order that his conscience will judge correctly and thereby lead him to personal integrity. Should he choose not to seek the truth of what is objectively good in human choices, he freely chooses to accept the possibility of a misinformed conscience. In this case he becomes responsible for such a poorly formed conscience. Furthermore, he has violated his own conscience; for every man knows intuitively that truth is larger than himself, and every man knows, by natural law, that he has a duty to seek the truth and allow himself to be measured by it — even the sceptic.
As an example of conscience formation, consider the following. I have always loved practical jokes. I used to enjoy playing certain kinds of practical jokes on people, the kind that involve lying, at least temporarily. Later I began to study Grisez's treatment of lying, found in his great work The Way of the Lord Jesus. I discovered that the kinds of jokes I enjoyed playing on people were not as morally innocent as I had originally thought. They involved the manipulation of a person's emotions. Exercising dominion over a person's emotions, even temporarily, is a violation of fairness. We have an obligation to treat others as persons equal in dignity to ourselves. This is violated when we manipulate others, because this kind of emotional manipulation involves exercising dominion (from dominus, "lord") over another. As I studied this, I was able to discern the truth in it. As I was reading his words, my conscience was in the process of being formed even further. I could have fought what I was reading and dismissed it as nonsense, but I knew that the author was right. Had I stopped reading for fear that I might be proven wrong, I would have been responsible for my erroneous conscience.
What one chooses to do and what one knows one ought to do are in conflict. This lack of harmony or integration is nothing less than a division of the self, or better yet, a disintegration. One is becoming disintegrated, fragmented, or split.
Now it is true that one can have a misinformed (erroneous) conscience that one is not responsible for. In this case one makes a judgment of conscience that is mistaken. It's hard to believe that anyone can have a conscience thoroughly conformed to the truth. Even Thomas More, one of my favourite saints, opted for the burning of heretics. I think we can safely say that he was a little off on this one. Nevertheless, it remains that one is obligated to follow an erroneous conscience, if one is not aware that it is erroneous. If a person honestly believes that a certain course of action is morally required, then not taking that course of action would mean choosing not to act in a way that he personally believes he ought to act. If I truly believe that giving a person in a certain situation false directions is the morally right thing to do, I am obligated to do it. To choose not to is to choose not to do something that I really believe is morally obligatory. By choosing not to give false directions, I choose a course of action that I believe is evil. Of course, as was said above, I might or might not be responsible for my mistaken judgment of conscience.
Returning now to the original question: "If it is true that every person must follow his own conscience, then who are you to tell me that what I'm doing is wrong?" Such a question is rooted in a confusion between judgment and decision. If conscience is a judgment, an act of the intellect, then others are obligated to tell me that what I am doing is wrong when they see me doing something that they know to be wrong — for no man is an island. Truth is something common, not private, and that is why the "good" is also "common" (we speak of the "common good"). And justice demands that we live for the common good. But it is not possible to promote the common good if truth is not something common, and every one of my choices affects the common good in some way — even my most personal choices. There is much more than a grain of truth in Dostoevsky's insight that "every man is answerable for everybody and everything, not just for his own sins", and that when we finally come to understand that idea, the kingdom of God will no longer be a dream but a reality (The Brothers Karamazov, p. 264-265).
But what if others don't know, but only believe, or are of the opinion, that what I'm doing is wrong? If I am a morally responsible human being, I will seriously consider what they say and look carefully into the matter. The thought that we just might be wrong should not come as any surprise, especially if we were to look back into our past and note how many times we have been mistaken about good and evil in human action. Such a glance back should help us acquire a healthy and realistic sense of our own finitude.
Conscience and the Church
This brings us to our next question: "What business does the Church have telling people what is morally required?" After acquiring a realistic and healthy sense of our limitations, the need for the guidance of the Church begins to make some sense. But more to the point, the Church is not a source of information or some sort of institution that is outside of me. Rather, if I live in the Person of Christ, I do so as a member of his Mystical Body, his Church. I am in the Church, not outside of it looking at it as an object existing outside of me — if I am in the habit of doing so, that says a great deal about me. Rather, my knowledge and awareness of the Church is akin to a person's awareness of himself. We know ourselves from the inside, so to speak, not from the outside. Now, that part of the Church that is the Magisterium exists for me, that is, for my benefit and my freedom. (The Magisterium is the organ of the charism of infallibility that belongs to the whole Church.) Since the Magisterium is a part of the Church, and since I too am a part of the Church, the Magisterium is part of something to which I intimately belong, just as my leg belongs to the same substance as my intellect. The formulated moral teachings of the Church are not something that comes to me as from a foreign source. The teachings of the Church are expressions of her self-understanding, and it is through these expressions that I come to understand myself as one who has appropriated the faith of the Church. And so I am obligated to form my conscience according to the teachings of the Church of which I am a part. These teachings do not limit my freedom or deprive me thereof; rather they are the very source of my freedom. For a person's freedom increases as his knowledge of what is truly good increases.
In conclusion, to violate one's conscience means to act in a way contrary to one's best judgment, not necessarily contrary to one's wishes. When one does so, one is in conflict with oneself. What one chooses to do and what one knows one ought to do are in conflict. This lack of harmony or integration is nothing less than a division of the self, or better yet, a disintegration. One is becoming disintegrated, fragmented, or split. In other words, one is on the way to mental illness. There is a real link between the moral life and one's psychological well-being. This does not mean that everyone who is mentally ill is for that reason immoral (which is faulty logic). But it does mean that violating one's conscience leads, in the end, to a disintegrated personality. In short, we destroy ourselves when we fail to heed the subtle and gentle voice of our conscience.
I maintain, Callicles, that it is not the most shameful of things to be wrongfully boxed on the ears, nor again to have either my purse or my person cut, but it is both more disgraceful and more wicked to strike or to cut me or what is mine wrongfully, and, further, theft and kidnapping and burglary and in a word any wrong done to me and mine is at once more shameful and worse for the wrongdoer than for me the sufferer.
Plato, (Gorgias, 508)
Deacon Douglas McManaman. "Conscience. " CERC (2002).
Printed with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.
Doug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Deacon Douglas studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. He is the author of Christ Lives!, The Logic of Anger, Why Be Afraid?, Basic Catholicism, Introduction to Philosophy for Young People, and A Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues. Deacon McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his website here.Copyright © 2011 Deacon Douglas McManaman
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